Kristina Nekya does splits

Review of Kristina Nekyia’s Get Bent: Circus Style Flexibility Training

Alright, admit it: I cannot be the only person to look around during the cool-down part of dance class and compare my flexibility to the dancers near me. It’s not that I’m much competition to anyone, not counting a few joints in my arms that allow me to perform East European circus tricks to the horror of all around. And it’s not that I’m planning on doing the splits in the foreseeable future. But there are so many times I come up against the limits of my flexibility — a back bend here, a plie there — and I wish those limits were a little further.

This is why when I heard about Get Bent – Circus Style Flexibility Training with Kristina Nekyia, I was dying to try it. I didn’t know if I could dream of splits, but I did want to know what tools were out there to help. I received a review copy from Kristina, and have worked with it a number of times over the last while.

Kristina Nekya does dancer stretches

The first thing to say is that this video is definitely not for people who have not moved around in a while, or for the overambitious who cannot pay attention to what their body is telling them. Get Bent is an intense program, you go into stretches for relatively long periods of time, and it plays on the edge of discomfort. As Kristina explains in the introduction, you need to differentiate between good and bad pain, and she describes how to recognize which is which.

To be perfectly honest, the first time I worked with the video I wasn’t sure if I had pushed myself too far, and was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to move the next day. In fact, I felt fantastic the next day, all kinds of aches and pains were gone. This has been true every time I have done the video — for me, it works like a really good yin yoga session. But I would still say that you need to be smart, careful, and aware using this DVD, as you will not have a live coach to watch over you.

The first section is a Warmup, which is more of a joint-loosening warmup than one to get your heart up very much. You systematically move all the joints of your body, from the wrists to the ankles, and start to practice some squats and leg raises. I was very glad to have this, as I would not have wanted to stretch cold, but I imagine that doing the video after a long workout would be even better.

Part 2 is Splits Preparation, which consists of forward and sideways lunges held for a good long time, followed by a series of yoga postures designed to relax the hamstrings. While some of the moves are yoga, the instruction isn’t. Kristina carefully guides you through dynamic stretches, using gentle movement and tensing and releasing of muscles to attain a deeper stretch. Everything is done equally on both sides. I find the little “tricks”, especially with tensing and releasing muscles, incredibly helpful.

Kristina Nekya does yoga

Part 3 is Splits. This was the hardest section for me, mainly because I can’t do anywhere near the splits. As much as it was difficult for me to levitate in the position that was as close as I could get, I did feel that I was stretching in a way that was beyond the lunges in Part 2. However, the middle splits are something one can practice even without too much of a range of motion. In this section, as through the video, Kristina gives you quiet encouragement and tips on saying nice things to your body. This sounds sort of funny at first, until you realize it works. So yes, I’ll admit it, I now say nice things to my body in my head when I’m stretching! The Splits section would be particularly valuable to people who can already do the splits, since there are also exercises for going beyond a 180-degree stretch.

Next comes the Shoulder Warm Up & Stretch. This was one of my favourite sections of the DVD, and perhaps the most generally useful. I sit at my computer a lot, for both work and fun, and it is not good for my shoulders and upper back. Kristina’s exercises really loosen the shoulders, and she also has some gorgeous stretches for the front of the shoulders and the chest. Again, this section would be worth doing as a break at the office, but would also be worth incorporating into a dance warmup. Really delicious.

The Backbends section will probably be most interesting to bellydancers. Kristina uses a mirror/wall to bend towards, but she also guides you to move from the upper back only, keeping the lower abdominals still. Again, this is one of those exercises I worry about when I’m doing, because I don’t want to hurt my lower back. But I’ve always been careful only to go as far as I could while still following Kristina’s instructions, and I’ve felt fine.

Finally, you get a short but satisfying yoga-based Cool Down. You have earned it. Heck, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably shaking at this point.

Throughout the DVD, Kristina is encouraging and funny. While she is clearly very fit, she is also curvy, and frankly, it made me very happy to see someone on the screen with a body similar to mine, but doing really cool things with it.

So the big question: does it work? I haven’t done the video the recommended three times a week, nowhere near it, so I can’t speak to the effects it would have if you really did it religiously. That said, when I did work with it, I noticed a difference in my classes afterwards. My muscles were remarkably looser, I felt more flexible, and I felt like I knew how to stretch better. I have to imagine that doing the video regularly would increase my flexibility even more.

You will like Get Bent – Circus Style Flexibility Training with Kristina Nekyia if you have some experience with stretching or yoga, are aware of your body and can respect its limits, and are craving really deep, long stretches. If you can already do splits, you will probably use the video as a maintenance and extension program. All of the program is useful for dancers, but there are parts, like the upper body and shoulder stretches, that bellydancers will particularly enjoy. I also think you’ll like it if you want the feeling of having done a great yoga session — you know, that sensation of everything in your body having been pulled apart and put back together loosely — without all the yogic tralala.

On the other hand, you will probably be frustrated with the DVD if you are very inflexible; in that case, you might be better off with a gentle yoga program. You also should not expect contortionist circus tricks, despite the title. These are very straightforward, well-known stretches, guided well, and with some extra techniques thrown in to make them feel better. But don’t expect to be pretzeling your legs around your neck or anything.

Kristina’s website is The Nekyia. You can get Get Bent – Circus Style Flexibility Training with Kristina Nekyia at Amazon by clicking the photo below.

Some tried and tested free yoga for your back and legs – David Procyshyn’s Deep Release

I knew I’d have hard decisions to make as a mother: breast or bottle, organic cotton nappies or disposable, constant ravaging guilt or just occasional intense bouts of it…. no, seriously, most of these were pretty easy. But what has been hard is this decision:

It’s late.

I’m tired.

But I also lugged around a toddler today and my back hurts.

If I go to bed now, I’ll get much-needed sleep.

But then my back might be worse tomorrow.

Yoga/stretching or sleep?

Usually I choose sleep, it’s just the most basic necessity, possibly even a little more important than air. But yesterday I chose yoga, and man was I glad I did. What I found was a one-hour program for the back and hamstrings that I thought would be just the thing for my tense lower back:

So, the first thing I loved about this is that it’s all sitting. I wanted something relaxing, and I was too tired to get up. I really just wanted to sit and stretch. The other thing is that other calming yoga programs I do often have pretty expected and easy asanas, so I tend to think that I could have just done the practice on my own. This program had a number of positions I’m not so familiar with, and with some measure of challenge. It gave me really deep, delicious stretches, exactly where I needed it to stop the pain in its tracks. Twists, forward bends, more twists, all done slowly and gently and with breath.

The other thing I really liked? David Procyshyn gives an instruction a few moments before doing it on screen, not at the same time. So you have time to process what he says, prepare to do it, and then do it along with him. It took me a bit to figure this out, but once I did I loved it — I wish all yoga instructors would do this. I never had the feeling I had to catch up to what was going on on screen.

Anyway, it’s free, go do it if you have back pain like me — it’s just an hour of your life. I for one loved it so much I will be checking out David’s other online videos.

Review of Elements of Yoga: Earth Foundation with Tara Lee

Tara Lee’s Beginners Yoga and Beyond: Elements of Yoga: Earth Foundation is meant to be a grounding practice. As Tara explains in her introduction, it’s supposed to help you let go of the stresses and anxiety of daily life, to find a balance and connection to the earth.

Tara Lee, yoga instructor

I tend not to get excited about the symbolic poetic effusions of yoga instructors, but I will say this. I worked with Earth Foundation after a period of no yoga at all. (Isn’t this always the case somehow?) I had been traveling a lot, my body was stiff, tired, inflexible… I wanted a yoga program that would stretch me out nicely without making me fall over. I wanted something that wouldn’t be too painful. In short, I wanted something forgiving. And this DVD hit the spot.

Tara Lee doing upward dog yoga position
What, did you expect blue skies and a tropical beach?

Earth Foundation is divided into three practices of about twenty minutes each, plus a 5-minute shavasana. In fact, the sections really build one well-constructed hour-long practice, though I guess you could do just one if you were pressed for time. Practice 1 starts out gently, with breathing to get centered, and continues with a series of slow, delicious dynamic stretches that get your body warmed up. Plenty of pauses in between too, with more breathing and relaxation. A number of the movements in this section were similar to exercises I know from Gary Kraftsow’s excellent Viniyoga programs, and since those have basically saved my back, I was inclined to trust the usefulness of this section. I may be getting you warmed up without too much trouble, but it also carefully strengthens the back muscles.

Tara Lee doing thigh work in her yoga DVD


Practice 2 begins with soft twists and forward bends, and moves into a long sun salutation. While it is not painfully challenging, I did feel myself working, getting warmer and even a bit tired. There are some deeper stretches like pigeon, and some delicious strength work. It’s all a bit more challenging, but still doable on a quiet evening. The third practice is more vinyasa flow, this time with warriors, triangles, and lunges. The latter part of this practice is another nice sequence of exercises and stretches for the back and hamstrings.

All in all, this is an approachable, but still satisfying, program. It’s marketed to beginners, and while you do need to know a bit about the poses, you don’t have to be in top shape to keep up. Nor do you need any uncanny flexibility. Someone very stiff could just do practice 1, and someone looking for a full workout should do the whole hour.

What I found particularly charming was the Englishness of it all. Tara has the accent of course, but even more delightfully, the “exotic” background is English countryside! It rather reminds me of a park I used to live near, and because it looks like a lot of places I’ve lived, it makes the yoga more approachable. I don’t get to practice yoga on a lot of Tahitian beaches, so why should I watch others do so?

The bonus features include three segments around ten minutes each: a more advanced balancing sequence for this “earth” program, along with a breathing segment for “air & water” and a difficult core workout for “fire.” I haven’t looked at the other DVDs, but I’m assuming they all have the same bonuses. Finally, there is a 17-minute interview with Tara, in which she describes how she found yoga and became a teacher. She also explains how her studies in shiatsu led her to focus on the elements, which became the basis of her DVD program. She comes across as thoughtful and intelligent. I should admit she really won me over with her description of yoga as a tool not only to deal with stress, but to get a sense of yourself as you, separate from the roles you inhabit in the world. Both yoga and dance do that for me (dance perhaps even more so), and it’s good to be reminded of how important that is.

I received a review copy of Beginners Yoga and Beyond: Elements of Yoga: Earth Foundation with Tara Lee.

Review of Chantal Donnelly’s Pain Free at Work

Although I’ve dedicated this blog to activities that make me feel physically wonderful, like dance, and yoga, and pilates, the truth is that I spend enormous amounts of time in front of the computer like everyone else. It’s not just work, though it is also work. But many things I love to do, like writing creatively (and like, well, my work) require the computer.

This means that I can reliably count on one thing: pain.

I was recently sent a review copy of Chantal Donnelly’s Pain Free at Work. The funny thing is, I’ve often wanted something just like what this video includes, namely a short stretching program that can be done in my office chair. But first things first.

Let me just pull up a seat…

Pain Free at Work is a mixed-genre DVD, made up of both informative lecture segments and sets of practical exercises. It’s about forty minutes long, and divided into multiple sections:

Pain Free Sitting
Training for Marathon Sitting – Phase 1
Training for Marathon Sitting – Phase 2
Ergonomics in the Work Place
Exercising at Your Desk
After Work Workout
Handling Pain: Elbow, Wrist and Hand Pain
Express Stress Relief

The lectures:

In Pain Free Sitting, Chantal demonstrates how to sit correctly so as to minimize the curvature of the back, and reduce pain. She uses a live model and anatomical charts. As much as I am easily bored during this kind of lecture, the truth is that I realised how much I am doing wrong when I sit at a desk. (Just right now I was sitting back with my legs crossed on the chair!) I’ve always known I was sitting poorly, but having it spelled out somehow helps me to check my own posture. (Now I am sitting up straight, abdominals in. Aren’t you proud of me?)

This is the secret to good laptop mojo!

 I found Ergonomics in the Work Place very useful. Again, this is the kind of thing I’ve read dozens of articles on, but I’ve rarely been able to control my work space to the extent needed to have an optimal setup. What I liked about this section is that Chantal and ergonomics expert Brad Hutchins deal with laptops, which I never have seen before. The assumption tends to be that you have a huge desk computer. The other thing I liked was Brad’s point that even making one improvement is better than nothing. I don’t have to have the perfect setup at work, but changing one thing is still good.

Express Stress Relief was really express. It is a short conversation between Chantal and Dr. Jeff Gero, and includes a few strategies on dealing with stress. Mainly deep breathing, meditation, and positive thinking. Honestly, I think each of these take enough training to do them right that having a short segment on them is not particularly helpful.

The lectures with some exercises:

Training for Marathon Sitting – Phase 1 is basically an introduction to connecting with your transverse abdominal muscle. Chantal provides some strategies for strengthening it while doing everyday tasks. Again, simple, but good to have the reminder. I do think that people who have not had training in accessing this muscle might benefit from even more detailed instruction. (I found Helen Byrne’s postnatal conditioning workout to be particularly focused in this respect.)

Handling Pain: Elbow, Wrist and Hand Pain is another brief segment, including two self-massage techniques for dealing with elbow and hand pain that were completely new to me. Short, but very worth while.

The exercise programs:

The real gem of Pain Free at Work for me is Exercising at Your Desk. This is a compact set of exercises you can do at your desk that will gently stretch everything from the feet to the head. The thing I particularly like about this is that the exercises do not look weird — that is, you don’t have to get into any funny or embarrassing positions to do them. You could do them around your coworkers and no one would bat an eye.

This is just a delicious inner-thigh stretch

 Training for Marathon Sitting – Phase 2 is a gentle yoga and pilates-type workout for stretching the back and building strength in both abdominal and back muscles. Chantal suggests you watch it through before doing it. This is a good idea, as the cuing is minimal. (I would have liked for everything to be cued.) That said, she does give good prompts on form and using the abdominal muscles for support. And she has one of the demonstrators show modifications, sometimes using a Swiss ball.

Finally, there is an After Work Workout that uses a thick foam roller for stretching and relaxation. I didn’t have the prop, so I didn’t do it! I can say that the other two workouts are simple but definitely relaxing.

In short, I think Pain Free at Work can be very useful to anyone spending a lot of time at a computer. Watching the lecture segments is not as much fun as doing the exercises, but I did get some good tips out of them. I think the best way to use it is to keep it in your office and do the stretches and self-massages on a regular basis, once or twice a day, as a preventative measure!

Review of Annette Fletcher’s Perfect in Ten: Stretch

[Note: Don’t forget to enter the giveaway for Annette Fletcher’s Prenatal Stretch & Strengthening before June 1, 2012!]

Being a new mother means suffering through all sorts of aches and pains: lower back, shoulders, neck (from looking down adoringly at my son, of course), you name it. The natural answer to this should be, of course, yoga. And I have several postnatal yoga videos to work with, but so far, I’m still not really ready to take on a proper yoga workout. So I decided to give Annette Fletcher’s Perfect in Ten: Stretch a go.

I was particularly motivated by the fact that the video is split up into ten-minute segments. I don’t have enormous chunks of time to myself these days, so I wanted to start something I could do in bits if I happened to be interrupted. (And of course, I was.) The video is broken up into the following chunks:

1. Upper Body, Back and Hips
2. Hips and Legs
3. Sedentary Lifestyle Relief
4. Sports Stretch
5. Intense Stretch

Chapters 1 and 2 really flow into each other — do them back to back and you’ll have some decent stretching for your entire body. Chapter 3 stands well on its own, as it has you do stretches while sitting in a chair. This would be perfect as a quick ten-minute stretch to do at work.

Chapter 4 contains stretches targeted for particular sports, such as tennis, golf, and running. However, it’s not a full stretching program on its own, so you’re best off learning the stretches useful to you and then doing them on the field. Finally, Chapter 5 has some deeper, mostly yoga-based stretches.

When I do a program like Perfect in Ten: Stretch, I typically ask myself several questions: How effective is the program, especially in ten-minute segments? How new to me are the moves? And, if the moves are not particularly innovative, is the way they are sequenced particularly interesting or good?

Effectiveness: When I’m really tense, ten minutes of stretching doesn’t do very much. It’s better than nothing, but won’t get me really relaxed. I think Chapter 3 is good on its own, as it is easy to do in one location and is perfectly designed as a little break. The other chapters have you move between standing, mat work, and wall-based work. (There is plenty of time for these changes, but I don’t have a lot of spare wall space, so I tend to be frustrated by extensive use of wall space in exercise videos.) Doing 1 and 2 together is good for basic, head-to-toe stretching. I did the entire video, with an interruption, and I found that doing all 50 minutes or so really was effective, deeply relaxing, and relieved all sorts of pain.

Novelty: Most of the stretches, especially in the first three segments, are ones I recognized, though there were some surprises. Annette uses a lot of gentle twisting moves, which I also liked. I thought the sports stretch and intense stretch chapters were the most interesting. Sports stretch has a shoulder stretch (pictured) that a former yoga teacher of mine had us do, and which is truly wonderful if done right — I’m glad to have it on video.

Sequencing: Despite the fact that the chapters are themed, Perfect in Ten: Stretch works as a whole. It starts with super gentle stretches, continues to slightly more intense one, and builds up to deep stretches. If you have a regular yoga practice, you will probably not find Perfect in Ten: Stretch challenging enough. But if you don’t, or you’re trying to build up to yoga but are inflexible or suffering from pain, you might find the video just the thing for slowly easing into yoga-type stretches.

I’ve previously reviewed some of Annette Fletcher’s DVDs for World Dance New York here and here. The more I work with her stuff, the more I like her. She has a calm, matter-of-fact demeanor I find soothing. Her cueing is detailed, precise, and allows you enough time to move from one position to another. (I noticed one missed cue in the whole video.) And I feel better and stronger once I’m done working with her videos. They’re just plain solid.

First workout with Helene Byrne’s Bounce Back Fast! Post Natal Core Conditioning

My mother’s day gift to myself? Starting to exercise again.

Even though there are many people who exercise before hitting the six-week mark, it’s my nature to have a sense of fearful respect towards any process that involves cutting my body open and rearranging my organs. So I was really careful to toe the line before I got my doctor’s ok: I didn’t lift heavy things, I didn’t exert myself too much — at least not two days in a row — and I did absolutely no exercise. Not even the lightest movements. None.

But man, was I ever dying to. So to ease into it again, I decided to start with my review copy of Helene Byrne’s Bounce Back Fast! Post Natal Core Conditioning. There are two workouts. “Gentle First Moves” can be done early in the postpartum period, and is all I’ve worked with so far. Then there is “Bounce Back Fast!”, with an “Abdominal Separation Program.”

Bounce Back Fast! begins with a series of informational segments on beginning postpartum exercise, using kegels to recondition the pelvic floor, dealing with Diastasis Recti (I didn’t have this so I skipped watching this segment), and ways to work the abdominals so as to pull in the stomach. I think it’s really worth watching through these at least once for two reasons. First, Helene introduces the postures she later calls on in the workout. And second, the tips on keeping the abs engaged during movement have made me much more aware of how I hold myself when walking, holding the baby, breastfeeding, and so on.

Now, let’s be frank here. This is not an exciting video. It’s filmed in a very plain studio, though the shots are very clear and professional. Helene enunciates everything slowly, explains in detail what the postpartum body needs, and doesn’t use cutesy words for body parts the way exercise video instructors sometimes do. There’s no “tushy” here. When Helene means “anus,” she says “anus.”

Nor is the workout exciting. If you were simply to watch it, you would probably think nothing is happening. And this, my dear readers, is why I always insist on doing the videos I review. Because this plain 30-minute workout, with no music and no flashing lights, is ridiculously effective.

I’ve done it three times so far, and each time I was suffering from upper and lower back pain before I began it. The first time I worked with the program, I felt pain relief the following day. The second and third times, I had no more back pain immediately after finishing the program. I am serious. One moment I was in lots of pain, and exactly half an hour later, I felt good.

How did this happen? The exercises themselves are fundamentally basic stretches, the kind I know from physiotherapy and from pilates/yoga type workouts. They remind me quite a bit of the Viniyoga back therapy videos I love so much. However, Helene cues them with precise attention to which muscles should be tensed and which relaxed. And each of the exercises has something just a little bit different about them. One focused on pulling in the abdominal muscles uses breath work and hand spotting to get those loose muscles working again. (Incidentally, this particular exercise would be great for belly dancers looking to isolate lower from upper abs!) A hamstring stretch uses the included elastic band to do a gentle but powerful variation. These are just a few examples.

The other thing I want to note is that while these exercises seem like nothing from the outside, doing them correctly is very difficult, especially postpartum. While my strength and flexibility have improved with each repetition of the workout, I’ve also come to see more and more how much concentration they need to be done according to Helene’s instructions.

I’m looking forward to working with the second part of the workout. But I’m also looking forward to returning to dance and yoga instructionals, to say nothing of other postpartum exercise programs, with the increased awareness of my abdominal muscles taught in Bounce Back Fast!

Bounce Back Fast! is also available on www.befitmom.com.

Review of Patricia Friberg’s Belly Beautiful Workout – Prenatal

Patricia Friberg’s Belly Beautiful Workout – Prenatal Fitness for a Beautiful Pregnancy is an excellent addition to a prenatal workout collection. While most prenatal workouts are yoga-based and focus on stretching, Belly Beautiful Workout is Pilates-based and will make you feel some burn, but it is also gentle and precise enough to be done even by a seven-month pregnant woman!

I received a review copy of this program, and was excited to try it because of the props. Patricia uses a Swiss ball and an elastic band in her exercises, and suggests you set up on a sticky mat. Now, this could be annoying if you don’t have the items, though the mat is really optional and the Swiss ball can be replaced in most cases with a chair. But I was glad — for a while, every exercise DVD I bought came with a free elastic band, and I somehow have acquired two Swiss balls I don’t quite know what to do with. So I’m happy to play with a program that teaches me how to use them.

The workout is divided into several sections:

A segment on Pelvic Floor Work (separate from the full workout)
Warm Up
Upper Body
Lower Body
Stretch
Relaxation

There is also an intro and a section on Diastitis recti, and Patricia tells you throughout the workout which moves to avoid if you have the latter.

In general, this is the kind of video that looks super easy to do when you watch it on screen, and is in fact much more challenging. The warmup is probably the only one I’ve done on a prenatal video that really warmed my muscles. The upper body segment uses the elastic band. Most of its moves are not terribly strenuous, but you will definitely feel some of them. (And the upper body tends to be neglected on prenatal workout videos, so I think it’s valuable.) And the lower body segment has some moves performed leaning sideways on the ball that are very difficult by the end. Patricia makes leaning on that ball look easy, but I fell off multiple times while trying to perform the exercises! The one thing I would say is that if, like me, you have weak knees, you should be careful performing these exercises and the lunges in the lower body workout.

This is much harder to do than it looks

The stretch segment is short, but effective (it also uses the ball, to my surprise!), and it leads to what I think is the real gem of the program: the relaxation segment. Now, most programs, even the yoga ones, tell you to relax during shavasana, or in a best case scenario, tell you to picture something relaxing or to relax particular body parts. Patricia sets you up in a position safe for pregnant women and then guides you through a progressive relaxation that is very similar to one in Preparation for Birth: The Complete Guide to the Lamaze Method. It involves tensing each muscle for five seconds and then relaxing it, which is much more effective than just “trying to relax.” How effective? Well, let’s just say that by the end of the relaxation segment, I had relaxed right out of consciousness. Even though I had been awake and alert just a few minutes earlier! I wound up having a wonderful nap on the floor (yes, right on the yoga mat) and will use that segment again just to practice guided relaxation.

I only did parts of the pelvic floor segment, but exercises do teach you how to access the Kegel muscles in a slightly different way than I’ve seen elsewhere, and I can imagine them being very useful. Most of them could also be done sitting at a desk.

You will love this video if:
– you want a bit more of a challenge than prenatal videos usually offer
– you like using props
– you like Pilates-based movements
– you want to focus on your upper body
– you want to practice deep relaxation as recommended by some natural childbirth methods
– you want practice building your Kegel muscles

You will not love this video if:
– you are primarily looking for stretching
– you have weak knees
– you hate having to buy or use props

You can get the video at bellybeautifulworkout.com/.